Company Patents First Designer Baby Maker. Now What?

Ethicists are concerned couples will start picking donors based on certain traits.

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Consumer genomics company 23andMe can help parents-to-be pick and choose from a list of traits their offspring could have — but says it won’t apply its DNA-based system to generate babies to order.

The patent, which was filed in 2008 and granted September 24, worries ethicists and the genetics community since it includes a “gamete donor selector” that would allow couples to have their sperm and egg genetically analyzed for specific traits ranging from height, eye color, risk of colon cancer or heart disease, to athleticism and the amount of health care costs their sons or daughters could expect to ring up over their lifetimes. Based on that information, they could find the right genetic combinations between them to produce their desired child — a blue-eyed, six foot tall, cancer-free, athletic future Olympian, for example. Infertile couples who rely on donor sperm and egg could do the same and choose a “preferred donor among the plurality of donors, based at least in part on the statistical information determined,” according to the patent.

(MORE: 23andMe Wants FDA Approval for Personal DNA Testing. What Can It Reveal?)

After 23andMe received inquires from both curious parents-to-be and concerned ethicists about their analytical DNA-based system, the company posted a response on its blog denying that it had any intention of using the tool to generate custom bundles of joy. Instead, officials said, the technology will be used to help couples get a better idea about the probability that their offspring would inherit a variety of traits, including mutations that predispose to cancer and heart disease. “”The company never pursued the concepts discussed in the patent beyond our Family Traits Inheritance Calculator, nor do we have any plans to do so,” 23andMe said in a statement about the patent. “Applying for patents is a normal part of our business and we remain committed to our core principals of giving people access to their own genetic data, innovating the model for research and being transparent with our customers about what we are doing.”

(MORE: Genetic Testing for Kids: Is It a Good Idea?)

Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society, told Wired, “it would be so irresponsible of 23andMe to actually offer a product or service based on this patent.” That’s primarily because genes often aren’t the only contributors to complex traits such as athleticism or cancer risk. Even height may be the result of both DNA-based and environmental factors such as diet that are hard to predict from a genetic profile alone.

23andMe’s tool goes further than existing methods for predicting traits in embryos generated by in vitro fertilization (IVF), and that’s what worries ethicists. Technicians routinely test IVF embryos for a number of genetic mutations for diseases such as Tay-Sachs and Huntington’s disease, and advise couples not to implant these embryos since they are unlikely to survive to term. 23andMe’s technique  includes the company’s knowledge about the genetic changes associated with cancer risk and physical attributes that previously haven’t been part of such genetic screening.

Will such testing become standard in coming years? The ability to link genes, or changes in genes, to not just disease but to behavioral and physical attributes like athleticism and congeniality will only continue to grow. And as this understanding improves, it could mean designer babies won’t be far behind — whether or not we’re ready to embrace them.